MP Update – 11th December

NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Friday 11th December 2015

The two issues I’ve received most emails about this week have been on the environmental circumstances facing bees and other pollinators – and then the TTIP transatlantic trade deal (more of which in the Parliament section below).

But given that so many constituents have asked about the conditions we need to preserve a healthy stock of bees and pollinators, I thought it would be helpful to report back on the debate in Westminster Hall on the subject of neonicotinoids. Wild bee populations have declined in the last 50 years, and there are concerns that three neonicotinoid insecticides, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, are having a harmful impact on bee populations.

In 2012, following a European assessment, the European Commission decided to restrict the use of three common neonicotinoids (Imidacloprid, Thiamethoxam and Clothianidin), and they have been subject to a two year precautionary ban in the EU since December 2013. There is some debate about the scientific evidence, as there are differences between field and laboratory results.

Partly because of this, the UK Government say while there were not convinced about the restrictions, they have nevertheless implemented them in full. However, in July 2015, the UK Government granted an emergency authorisation for the use of restricted neonicotinoids on oil seed rape seeds after an application from the National Farmers’ Union. This applies for a time-limited period in four English counties and does not affect the overall ban.

A number of environmental groups have argued that the two year suspension is not enough to allow bee populations to recover, and in August, Friends of the Earth were denied an application for judicial review of the emergency authorisation.

I will try to monitor the decision-making process around this restriction closely as I know that there are significant environmental concerns at stake. It has been helpful to hear the views of so many people on this issue and I will take a close interest and press Ministers to be guided by the evidence and the precautionary principle on this.

NOTTINGHAM

  • On Friday, I was delighted to announce the winner of my 2015 Christmas Picture Competition at Seely Primary School in Sherwood. The winning entry came from 11-year old Jasmine Johal (pictured centre), a pupil at Seely, who was presented with a KindleFire tablet computer kindly donated by Experian. I was really impressed with all of the entries this year, and I want to thank all of the schools and children who took part. Thanks also to Bhavisha Kukadia (pictured right) and the team at New Art Exchange, who helped me judge. I will be sending out my Christmas e-card next week, which will feature the winning entry as well as all of the runners up.

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  • On Tuesday in Parliament I met a group of students from Nottingham Trent University (pictured below), who lobbied me as part of the National Union of Students #CutTheCosts week of action. We talked about the increasing debt that will burden this generation of students, and in particular the replacement of maintenance grants for poorer students with loans, announced in the July Budget. These grants support half a million students, who could now leave university with debts of up to £53,000. There is a real risk that the Conservatives’ plans could put off those from poorer backgrounds attending further education.

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  • Robin Hood Energy is a not-for-profit new energy supply company owned and controlled by Nottingham City Council. It was launched on 7 September 2015 to provide affordable energy to customers and to help tackle fuel poverty. It is the country’s first local authority owned energy supply company to be launched since nationalisation in 1948. Domestic customers in England, Scotland and Wales can switch to Robin Hood Energy to purchase their gas and electricity. Robin Hood Energy has this week launched a new pre-payment tariff for low income customers. The pay-as-you-go tariff allows customers to better manage their household budgets by tracking how much energy they’re using and better spread the cost of their energy usage throughout the year. More details at their website here https://www.robinhoodenergy.co.uk/
  • On Sunday 20th December, there will be a festive evening of live music and children’s activities in the Arboretum. The event takes place from 4-6pm and the meeting point is the Bandstand.

PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS

  • Yesterday I was in the House of Commons for the debate on a motion on TTIP, the proposed transatlantic trade deal that is being negotiated between the EU and US – and on which I have received many emails this week. There have been several debates on this subject in the House of Commons over the past couple of years and I am sure that they have helped to shape the debate about TTIP and to influence the negotiations in a positive way. There is general cross-party support for trade, and for a good trade agreement, but there also some concerns too. I feel there are a number of tests we ought to watch out for on this negotiation. The first key test is the ability of the deal to deliver jobs and growth. The second is that it should be open and accountable. The third is the aim to achieve the highest possible standards regarding social and environmental concerns and, of course, wages. Fourthly, the agreement must allow enough space for national Governments to act in their own interests and according to their own democratic mandates. I believe it right that this important issue be debated in Parliament, and that the proposals receive proper scrutiny at UK and EU level. I support trade agreements that can bring significant benefits through boosting trade and growth, securing and creating jobs, and bringing down costs and extending choice for consumers. However, it was right to hold the Government to account on the legitimate concerns that have been raised.
  • On Monday the Government’s Cities and Local Government Bill returned to the House of Commons for its Report Stage and Third Reading. I have been watching this legislation closely because it has local implications on whether we see a ‘combined authority’ created covering our part of the East Midlands comprised of the city councils, district and county councils. I support real devolution to empower our communities, but have some concerns about the way the Government are pursuing a process of piecemeal deals that do not offer meaningful devolution to all areas of England. Nevertheless, I was particularly concerned that the Minister did not unwittingly cause problems for a Nottinghamshire deal by allowing smaller district councils to essentially veto arrangements agreed by the vast majority of other local authorities. I was pleased that, after interventions from my colleague Graham Allen, the Minister confirmed that any requests from district councils to ‘opt out’ would not be automatically accepted and that consensus was still the overriding objective.
  • On Monday the Environment Secretary made a statement in the House of Commons on the recent floods in the north of England. I am sure all of our thoughts are with communities in Cumbria and Lancashire that have once again been devastated by flooding. The immediate priority, of course, must be providing help for those who have been forced to evacuate their homes and businesses and I support a cross-party approach to try to ensure those affected are, wherever possible, back home and safe before Christmas. Extreme weather events are increasingly a feature of British weather and Government policy has to adapt accordingly. I am pleased the Government has agreed to look again at whether it has spent enough on flood defences.
  • The European Union Referendum Bill that will set out the rules for a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union was debated on Tuesday. I support this Bill and its passage through Parliament as I believe the British people should have a say on the UK’s membership of the EU. The Bill had completed its House of Lords stages and the Lords’ amendments were considered by MPs. One of the amendments intended to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum. My Shadow Frontbench colleagues pressed a similar amendment when the Bill was previously debated in the House of Commons.  However, on Tuesday the Government overturned the Lords amendment and struck it out of the Bill. I believe it would be better for the Government to allow young adults a say in the European referendum. Major constitutional referendums are a once-in-a-generation choice about the country’s future direction. Young people deserve a say in the decision.
  • On Wednesday the House of Commons debated a motion by the Opposition about women and the economy. Tax and benefit changes in the Summer Budget and Autumn Statement have disproportionately affected women and analysis from the Women’s Budget Group shows that lone parents and single female pensioners are set to lose most from the Spending Review decisions over this Parliament, having already lost most from cuts announced in the previous Parliament. Of the £82bn in tax increases and cuts in social security spending since 2010 that will be implemented over the course of this Parliament, 80% will come from women. Labour’s motion raised concern that the UK gender pay gap stands at 19.2 per cent, higher than the EU average, and that the Government’s introduction of tribunal fees means that women have to pay £1,200 in order to bring forward an equal pay claim, preventing many from pursuing legitimate claims. In addition, levels of maternity discrimination have almost doubled in recent years and there has been an alarming rate of closures of services supporting victims of domestic violence, particularly services for BME women.
  • On Wednesday Labour called a debate on Mental Health. One in four of us will have a mental illness at some point in our lives and I believe mental health should be treated with the same priority as physical health. However the Government have more to do to translate their rhetoric on mental health into reality on the ground. There has been an increase in the number of patients who report a poor experience of community mental health care. More patients have to travel hundreds of miles just to get a bed and the number of children being treated on adult wards has risen again this year. The number of people becoming so ill that they had to be detained under the Mental Health Acts has risen by 10% in the past year and the level of suicides, particularly among men under the age of 45, has been at its highest since 2001. I believe the right to psychological therapies should be enshrined in the NHS Constitution. Labour’s motion also called on the Government to reinstate the annual survey of investment in mental health services and to develop and implement in full a new strategy to improve the cross-departmental response to mental health. The Government opposed the motion and the vote was lost.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yesterday was UN International Human Rights Day. One of the most worrying of Conservative plans for this Parliament is the repeal of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and its replacement by a supposedly ‘British’ Bill of Rights, though proposals are currently vague. Last week Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that the Government had delayed plans to scrap the HRA until 2016.

Introduced in 1998 and coming into force in 2000, the Human Rights Act incorporated the basic values set out in the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. This meant that the judiciary must take into account decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg and that if an Act of Parliament cannot be interpreted to be compatible with ECHR rights British courts can issue a declaration of incompatibility (though the law remains valid, so Parliamentary sovereignty is maintained).

Although the Tory manifesto promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights”, Ministers seem to be struggling to set out exactly what they want. But with David Cameron and Michael Gove refusing to rule out withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, it appears they have painted themselves into a corner here.

Have you got strong opinions about the Human Rights Act? Is there a need for redrafting this legislation? Or is this issue more related to the backbench euroscepticism on the Government side?

I am interested for any thoughts about the current state of human rights in the UK and indeed around the world.

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